Monday - when my husband and I were both sick in bed - was a very unhappy, sad day, not only because of my pain, but because of the feeling that neither my husband nor I could adequately care for our children while we suffered our illnesses. Both my husband and I had to lie down most of the day, and this meant quarrels between the boys went unsettled, meals were poor in nutritional quality, and my 5-year-old left the property without asking permission. And yet, what could we do? Who could we ask to come to our home and risk exposure to the contagion to take care of our children? Most of our friends have their own young children, and young children in a home contaminated with that kind of sickness almost always leads to more sick children. Or who would come prepare for us a meal? There wasn't much chance that my picky children would eat it, and neither was it a good bet that my troubled gut would take it in either. Who could rush over to fix a lock on the gate that would somehow do the magical work of keeping our child from climbing the fence when he set his mind to it?
I feel quite certain that there are more than a few people (though perhaps fewer than I imagine) who would simply say: "You have too many children, and your life and their lives would be better if you didn't have them." Yes, it's true that we wouldn't have children to care for if we'd never had children. (Obv.) It's certainly true that we wouldn't have too many children to care for if we hadn't had them. But how, exactly, their life is supposed to be better if they don't have life is a riddle beyond me. And now that we know them, choosing between them which should have existed and which should not have existed is impossible. What of the love and happiness we would be lose if even one child were taken from us?
It's true, the love we bear for our children was a pretty weak and abstract idea at conception. Each time I've gotten the two positive lines on the pregnancy test, I haven't felt especially loving. I mostly feel nervous, and then tired, and then a few weeks later a little queasy. And this love, it had to grow all throughout pregnancy and childhood to accommodate difficulties of all kinds - nausea, backaches, heartaches, frustration. But before long, the thought of living without this love somehow becames so horrifying as to inspire physical symptoms of revulsion and panic. Sick children evoke more pity than almost anything. Cruel treatment of children sometimes makes people feel even worse than a pregnant woman with morning sickness. The death of a child has everyone looking around for someone to blame. What can be said of what we and the world they eventually live in would miss if my children weren't in it? Husbands, fathers, coworkers, friends, teachers, leaders, servants would be missing from the world. And yet people who think or say "you have too many children" do not consider these things.
Suffering parents don't need to hear, "your life would be better without your children." They need to hear that their suffering is not only evidence of some problem in their lives, but also evidence of the growing pains of love. They need to hear that the problems they have are not the people closest to them. The problem is a stomach bug, not the person afflicted by it. The problem is too few other people to care for the children, not the child himself. The problem is what the parents don't know or can't do by themselves, not the fact that their children need their love and care. This is what parents need to hear. Above all, they also need to hear that someone else loves their children, too; not that someone else believes there are too many of them.
Hopefully this doesn't sound bitter. I suppose it might be impossible for it not to sound bitter, because the truth is that I struggle mightily with bitter feelings towards people whose words or conduct even come close to suggesting that I would be happier without so many children. But the idea that I have "too many children" is one that is suggested in dozens of small ways, both by people who know us and people who don't. There's a fine line between, "you don't have to have so many children," and "a woman shouldn't have so many children," and "you shouldn't have had so many children." It's a line that's easily crossed in my own mind.
For example, it is a line crossed in my mind every time someone criticizes the Duggars, because how many is too many? It is suggested every time someone says I need to get away from my children to be happy. It is occasionally suggested when someone says "You must be busy!" but doesn't follow it up with an offer to babysit. It is suggested every time a relative asserts that my friends with five children have too many children, or asks why anyone would want 6 children at all. It is suggested every time a woman protests that she would never be able to have more than two, because the strong emphasis of her statement can also imply that no woman is strong enough to do it. Doctors, relatives, friends, and complete strangers have articulated it in so many ways, and it haunts my life daily. I pray you forgive me wherever I have wrongly assumed you are one of them, and beg you to be careful about perpetuating this belief upon mothers of many little ones. I lack the confidence that so many of my wonderful friends seem to have about their large families, and somehow the number five has really brought the issue to the fore.
All of this is, of course, made worse by the fact that I have diabetes. Pregnancy is hard, and harder with diabetes. Low blood sugars are more common, though they happen outside of pregnancy, too. My doctor once told me that I didn't "need to have 20 children" - a fact I wholeheartedly agree with - but he also strongly implied that having three was an example of ingratitude for the two already born. So where is the line between 2 and 20? How will I know that I've crossed it? This is what haunts me.
So I guess I've got some anxiety and frustration and questions, to go along with some pretty firm convictions about this season of my life. I'll close here quoting one of the greatest servants of the last century, who gave her life in love for the poor. She offers a thought that consoles me often: "How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers."